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U.S. to draw up sanctions for 'ongoing abuses' in Belarus after plane's forced landing

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko to allow “a credible international investigation.”
Image: Russian President Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Lukashenko in Sochi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko take a boat trip off the Black Sea coast, Russia May 29, 2021.Sputnik / Reuters

President Joe Biden's administration said it would sanction members of Belarus' government Friday, amid international outrage over forced landing of a commercial flight to seize an opposition journalist.

Within hours of a meeting between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that the United States was developing a list of targeted sanctions against key members of the eastern European country's government.

Without naming who would be sanctioned, she said they were "associated with ongoing abuses of human rights and corruption, the falsification of the 2020 election and the events of May 23," referring to the date that the plane was forced to land.

Calling on Lukashenko to allow “a credible international investigation” into the incident, she said that the U.S. was suspending a 2019 agreement between Washington and Minsk that allowed carriers from each country to use the other's airspace.

Her comments came amid widespread calls for the release of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend who were traveling aboard the commercial Ryanair passenger plane from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday when Belarusian authorities flagged what turned out to be a false bomb threat to force the aircraft to land in the country's capital, Minsk.

The pair were subsequently arrested and remain in custody, despite growing international pressure for their release.

The U.S. and its European allies have dismissed Belarus’ version of events, saying Lukashenko forced the plane down to detain the journalist, who had previously edited the Nexta Telegram channel which was highly critical of his government.

In response, the European Union sealed its airspace to Belarusian airlines, and some European airlines opted to bypass Belarusian airspace altogether.

The Federal Aviation Administration has also advised airlines Friday to use "extreme caution" when considering flying in Belarusian airspace, Psaki said.

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Lukashenko has led the former Soviet republic of 9.3 million for nearly 27 years, relentlessly stifling dissent. He has faced unprecedented protests after his reelection to a sixth term last year after many considered the election outcome to be rigged.

He responded with a fierce clampdown, detaining thousands. Some protesters have alleged beatings and mistreatment in custody.

Belarus's opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya attends a protest against Belarus' regime on Dam Square in Amsterdam on Friday.Jeroen Jumelet / AFP - Getty Images

His main opponent, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to neighboring Lithuania under pressure from the government shortly after the election.

After she called for demonstrations in solidarity with those opposing Lukashenko's regime, protests took place in several cities including London, Warsaw and Vilnius.

Increasingly isolated by the U.S. and its western allies after the plane incident, Lukashenko has turned to one of his only remaining allies, Russia on Friday when he met with Putin.

The Russian leader offered his support and described western criticism of the plane landing as “an outburst of emotion.”